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Makeup Artist Erin Parsons Let Us Tag Along Backstage at NYFW

Get an up-close glimpse at the dreamy makeup looks she created for the Fall 2018 Alice + Olivia presentation.
A look from the Alice + Olivia Fall 2018 presentation. Photo: Marcelo Cantu for Maybelline New York

A look from the Alice + Olivia Fall 2018 presentation. Photo: Marcelo Cantu for Maybelline New York

It's a cold but bright and sunny Monday, a welcome start to a fashion week that is typically filled with the bleakest days. Stepping into the 11 floor Alice + Olivia studio, the morning light floods through the floor-to-ceiling windows, bouncing off brass accents that are sprinkled throughout the mostly clean, white space.

Maybelline's global makeup artist, Erin Parsons, is beginning the makeup test ahead of the show. She's looking over inspiration boards with the designer's team, wearing an oversized shirt, striped pants, a black velvet baseball hat and her signature platform sneakers. She's been wearing the same shoes since she was a kid due to her short stature. She even wore them (along with blue eyeshadow and false lashes) for the start of her Air Force career when she was 18. "We were in basic training and the sergeant is yelling at everybody and she looks at me and she's just speechless," recalls Parsons. "She's just like, 'What is this person?'" Just being in the makeup artist's presence, you can sense that she has a certain natural cool factor. It's not an unapproachable cool, though. Throughout the entire four-and-a-half-hour test, Parsons jokes and chats with everyone, emitting a contagious, positive energy.

At Parsons' station, there are papers lying around with pictures of three different makeup looks she's previously discussed with the designer's team: The first is of a model that doesn't seem to have any makeup on at all; the second has silver glitter, sparkles and stars all around the eye; and the third has a smudged-out, black smoky eye. This level of clear vision is rare for a makeup test. "For the most part, in a couple of hours you have to think quickly and come up with a look that makes sense with the collection and that the designer likes," Parsons tells me later. However, with eight days until the presentation, there are still no clothes for the makeup artist to look at, making the images an appreciated necessity.

Parsons seems comfortable and at-ease, which can probably be attributed to her decade of fashion-week experience. After working retail counters for companies like Lancomé and Bobbi Brown, she moved to New York City in 2008. Within the first few months of moving, her friend from MAC helped get her into a show assisting Pat McGrath. "All these people already knew how to do shows. It was my first time, so it was like a whole new world," she says. 

The next season, Parsons was brought back to do more shows with McGrath, eventually becoming her first assistant. "She told me she could tell I was really passionate about it. I respect Pat so much, so I was just excited to be working with her," she says.

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After two years of being on her own, Parsons now has her very own first assistant. Aya Watanabe (or "the skin master," as Parsons claims client Gigi Hadid has dubbed her) has been back at their station, creating the no-makeup look to help speed things along while Parsons talks with the designers. Before switching models with the hairstylist, she checks the first model and touches up the brows a bit, joking that from a young age, she learned how to shape them by looking at pictures of Linda Evangelista. Then, one time when she worked with the legendary model during her time with McGrath, Evangelista told Parsons she'd done her brows better than anyone else. "I mean, I could've cried. It was the top compliment I've ever received in my life. I'm still giddy over it," she says.

The next model comes over with her dark hair done in loose waves. Once her skin is prepped by the skin master, Parsons starts to create the black smoky eye. Even though the general trend has leaned toward more natural-looking makeup in recent seasons, it's clear that Parsons lives for creating dramatic, artful looks: "I always just want to like slap the foundation on and get to the fun stuff."

As she smudges Maybelline Eyestudio Lasting Drama Gel Pencil Liner in Sleek Onyx around the model's lash line, Parsons' assistants stand back with tools and products in hand, ready to pass them to her as needed. I later learn that her second assistant, Christian Briceno, got his start as a Tresemmé hairstylist before focusing on makeup exclusively. They standing close by — but not too close — and move when Parsons moves, a practiced performance that comes from plenty of experience working as a team. "Aya can basically read my mind. Before I'm even asking for something, she's handing it to me," says Parsons.

A look from the Alice + Olivia Fall 2018 presentation. Photo: Marcelo Cantu for Maybelline New York

A look from the Alice + Olivia Fall 2018 presentation. Photo: Marcelo Cantu for Maybelline New York

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The look is striking, but seems to take little to no time at all. Once both models have their hair and makeup done, they head down to get approval from the Alice + Olivia team. When they return, there are a few minor adjustments: A touch of pink is added to the cheeks, lips and lids for the no-makeup look in order to mimic Marie Antoinette vibe of the hair. Parsons adds gloss to the eyelids on both looks for a reflective sheen. With these tweaks, the looks are quickly approved.

It's the final look has the team the most excited: Without hesitation, Parsons's assistants open one of the three large suitcases and pull out more silver glitter options than I even knew existed. "I only have three bags; I think Pat has, like, 60," says Parsons. But the metallic glitter look doesn't get approved; it's decided that the majority of the models will wear the black smoky eye, while a handful of eight or so will wear the Marie Antoinette makeup.

It's an early start to presentation day for the makeup team, with an 8 a.m. backstage call time and a 6 a.m. second makeup test. Per the designer's preferences, Parsons ended up changing the look the evening before the presentation: Rather than layering gloss over the black makeup, the look will include flecks of black, sequin-like glitter. "We just thought that after a two-hour presentation the gloss would fade," she tells me. Although it sounds like a slight change, the new look is indeed much more attention-grabbing. 

On top of the changed-up look, Parsons and her team are also dealing with the fact that ten more models have been added to the lineup at the last moment. I'm told this is common for presentations, but it still seems to add a bit of stress to the already tense situation. The Marie Antoinette look will still be shown on three models, but a majority of the 50 models will get the glittery, glam rocker look.

A look from the Alice + Olivia Fall 2018 presentation. Photo: Marcelo Cantu for Maybelline New York

A look from the Alice + Olivia Fall 2018 presentation. Photo: Marcelo Cantu for Maybelline New York

As it gets closer to show time, the backstage becomes increasingly hectic. With models, editors and photographers continuing to show up, there's a crowd of what feels like more than a hundred people filling the curtained-off area. Over the two-and-a-half-hours of mayhem, Parsons continues to go over how to get the look with press, while also approving the makeup of every model her 22-person team of Maybelline makeup artists has completed. Even when one of the models has to take off all her black makeup to start over, Parsons stays incredibly calm, professional and — honestly — happy.

Around 10:15 a.m., the models begin to get dressed and line up. Parsons' assistants put on their large backstage kits and stand at the ready with Maybelline Face Studio Master Fix Setting + Perfecting Loose Powder and scotch tape in hand. Parsons does a few quick touch-ups here and there while also talking with some late-arriving beauty editors.

This is Parsons' only show of the week, which allows for some time in her schedule between bookings before heading to Milan with Hadid for the Tommy Hilfiger show on Feb. 25. When the models are ready, the nails, hair and makeup teams all start to pack up their bags and leave. But Parsons stays put. She runs back to her station to snap a camera device onto her phone, eager to take pictures of the models all done up. "I never get to see the clothes!" she says, excitedly. As for how the looks she and her team have put together went over? People were into that black glitter. Just check your Instagram feed.

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